On Useful Feedback and Silencing the Inner Critic
December 9, 2022 § 14 Comments
By Camilla Sanderson
Thinking about the first workshop I took as a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, I feel compassion for my fellow writers. I didn’t know what I was doing, was all opinion and ego, and wasn’t even sure what ‘craft’ was exactly. It wasn’t so much that I suffered with bad feedback from others—I had the audacity back then to simply dismiss whatever didn’t resonate. But what I truly regret is not knowing how to give better feedback to my fellow writers.
It wasn’t until years later when I heard Suzanne Kingsbury, the founder of the Gateless Writing Academy say, “Writers need craft, not opinion,” that I had an epiphany. When feedback is opinion, I’ve noticed the tendency for inexperienced writers (women in particular) to change writing to please others. This is our cultural conditioning: to please others. But one of the most liberating aspects of writing is to speak one’s own truth. Conversely, when feedback focuses on craft, instead of opinion, we receive information that helps us to do exactly that: express our own truth while simultaneously strengthening and deepening the craft of our writing.
While immersed in writing and revising a first draft of a memoir in the VCFA MFA program, maybe I was just too inexperienced and overwhelmed to gain more awareness of craft elements, but I do think every writer is well served to understand how feedback can be most useful. In the Gateless Writing Academy, I learned how to focus my feedback on craft elements such as narrative arc, character development, lyrical sentences, conflict in story, scene and chapter construction, setting a reader in time and place, beginnings and desire, structure and scaffolding, description and details, juxtaposition, rhythm, etc.
In a Harvard Business Review article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall elucidate many myths surrounding the feedback process. “Research,” they say, “shows that people can’t reliably rate the performance of others. More than 50% of your rating of someone reflects your characteristics, not hers.” My own experience backed this up: in several MFA writing workshops, when a writer gave feedback––because it was so often opinion––it reflected more about the writer giving the feedback than about the writing being workshopped. Focusing on craft eliminates that kind of opinion.
Not being able to “reliably rate the performance of others” also points towards how the most effective feedback is not about judging something as good or bad, which is a binary tendency we’ve all be conditioned into simply from growing up in the West.
Effective feedback involves shining the light on what is working. This is what opens the door to learning, and research in brain science backs this up: “Neuroscience shows that we grow most when people focus on our strengths.” In the HBR article they write, “focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” In other words, “getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.”
These findings are opposite to the dominant patriarchal paradigm, which focuses on “what needs fixing,” resulting in a damaging kind of perfectionism that blocks our enjoyment of the writing process and feeds the pernicious Inner Critic.
Perhaps one of my most important learnings on the writer’s path has been about the Inner Critic. Maybe interfaith seminary first planted the seed: I am not my thoughts; I am the observing awareness behind my thoughts. This helps me to cultivate space and distance from my Inner Critic and not be the effect of it. It’s evident that the Gateless Writing Academy also recognizes how much the Inner Critic effects writers, as they dedicate the entire first month of seminars to learning what it is and how to cultivate space around it.
I find it fascinating though, that a part of me is addicted to wanting to know where other writers may find my writing lacking. It feels impossible to give up the desire: “Tell me where it needs fixing.” But perhaps this points more towards a desire for mastery and the difference between feedback from fellow writers versus an editor’s expertise—the latter being a completely different skillset.
I want my writing to get to the place where it feels like its singing. I’ve had that happen with cooking, where friends have told me the food is singing. But that is never a result of prior meals being critiqued or being told where they think I could do better. It happens when I trust my knowledge of the basic elements of cooking—perhaps akin to elements of craft in the practice of writing—and when I’ve achieved a level of mastery from many, many hours of practice.
Perhaps there’s also simply a mystical aspect to both writing and cooking—that “je ne sais quoi.” Maybe it’s a kind of alchemical energy, a kind of magic. And when we’re aligned with the force of that creative mystery, maybe that’s also when the writing will sing.
Camilla Sanderson is the author of The Mini Book of Mindfulness (Hachette, 2016). You are invited to subscribe to her Substack newsletter where you may also read the first six serialized chapters of her forthcoming book, The Rising of the Divine Feminine and the Buddhist Monks Across the Road: A Memoir. Camilla also loves to laugh—particularly at her own ego, which she holds like a beloved pet, and by laughing at it when it wants to run the show—which it often does—she is endlessly amused.